WILSON: The end of an era

What just happened?

A couple of months back, I (and several million of my friends) took an unplanned two-week vacation. Correction: an unplanned staycation — we couldn’t go to work, and we couldn’t go anywhere else. That unscheduled respite was extended for a couple more weeks (by folks with much greater power than any of us ever realized), and that months-long furlough morphed into the most surreal event of my life — I retired.

Until now, I have tried to keep my professional life disconnected from the words in these essays. I chose to focus my writings on the silliness of the world around us, rather than on any silliness that might have been going on within the environment from which I earned my income. Besides, there are a whole bunch of regulations that prohibit me from sharing too much of what I do (or, I guess, did) — they are all codified in a little set of rules known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Ya’ see…until this very day (May 2, 2020) I taught many of the construction trades — green technology courses at Southwestern Michigan College. It was my honor, privilege and pleasure to stand in front of a bunch of people, day after day, year after year, and ramble on (and on, and on) about the few tidbits of knowledge that bounce around my otherwise empty brain — and get paid for it! Best gig ever.

I reached the potential age of retirement a few years back. At that point, I could have taken my pension, Social Security checks, knocked off a convenience store here and there, and lived a comfortable life. But…something in me wasn’t quite ready to be turned out to pasture. Each spring, as I walked away from the commencement ceremony, after I had shaken the hands of my graduating students, after I had encouraged each student to keep me posted on all the great things that their futures were about to encounter, a voice inside my head would mumble, “Let’s give it one more year.”

However, this year, sometime after the start of the spring semester, that voice inside my head quit mumbling. This time, a very clear message echoed around in my increasingly ancient brain. “It is time,” it said. I didn’t argue with myself. I knew I was right and, when I am right, it is best for me to agree with myself.

I told only a handful of close friends. I still had students to shepherd, and they were to be my focus for another four months. One of those close friends congratulated me on my decision and commented that it must be a wonderful feeling. My response was, “Ask me again after I walk away from graduation, one last time.”

Today (as this piece hits the newsstands) would have been that final graduation — May 2, 2020. But “today” is not going to happen. Instead, a virus happened — and rearranged everyone’s habits, attitudes and lives. Just like every other college in the country, we shifted to online learning (which ain’t that easy when the best practices of teaching construction involve hands-on learning). I have graded all of the tests and assignments, posted final grades, and we all made it through this, together (but from a distance).

However, as I hit the “submit” button to send those final grades off into the digital ether, a very unsettling feeling came over me. That damn voice spoke up, one last time — hushed, but even clearer than ever before.

“That’s it,” it said. “You’re done.”

No final graduation. No handshakes. No hugs. No stifled tears (because the Michigan Residential Code clearly states that construction workers do not cry). Just DONE! A very surreal finish to the most amazing era of my life.

To my graduating students: Congratulations! You did this. You succeeded during (and in spite of) one of the most upside-down moments in the history of the world. If you can survive this (and you did) you can succeed in anything and everything else life throws your way. Always remember — you are a 2020 graduate. You have accomplished something that few would ever attempt. Be proud!

Thank you for spending the last couple of years with me — it has been an honor. Please keep in touch and brag to me about all of the amazing things that you are about to achieve.

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